Frankie Shaw’s new Showtime comedy SMILF about a twenty-something single mother is raw, gritty, and real because—guess what—she’s been through it all. For Shaw, the memory of getting pregnant at 24 with her then-boyfriend Mark Webber is fresh. The two were in Philadelphia shooting his directorial debut film, Explicit Ills, in which she had a role. “I took a pregnancy test, and I remember walking around being like, ‘What am I going to do?’ ” says Shaw, who had only just begun to pursue an acting career. “I got on a train to Boston to see my aunts in Southie. One of my aunts said, ‘Frankie, you have the love, but babies need stability. You need to get a regular job and move back home.’”
Shaw, refusing to give up on her dream, did the opposite: “I decided to keep the baby and move to L.A. by myself when I was 11 weeks pregnant.” She left Webber (“It wasn’t working for various reasons”) and found a roommate from a rental listing. “I show up, and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m pregnant!’ She definitely wasn’t expecting her roommate to be pregnant. I ended up not staying there for long.” And was Shaw ready to be a mother? “No,” she says. “But I knew that if I just kept going, I would be able to make a life for me and my son.”
She got to work, hustling to land anything to keep her and Isaac afloat. “It’s not like I could couch-hop with a baby,” she says. “You can’t be this rambling artist in your twenties if you have a child. I had to be more focused.” Shaw juggled auditions with assistant work and SAT and AP test tutoring gigs for extra cash. “Isaac came with me to everything I did those first few years,” she says. “I remember even bringing him to yoga.” Luckily her mother (who had raised Shaw on her own) came out to L.A. to help with child care. Shaw also tried to keep some semblance of a young life: She dated a little. “I remember right before one guy kissed me good night, he was like, ‘I just want you to know, I’m cool with the kid thing.’ I was like, ‘Uh, thanks?’” To her, Isaac wasn’t something to be cool with: “It was like, ‘Oh, you would be lucky to be in Isaac’s life.’ ”
Eventually she landed a role in ABC’s series Mixology in 2013, which—despite being canceled after one season—earned her enough cash to direct a few shorts she had written on the side. “That is when things started to change,” she says. Writing and directing gave her a way out of endless auditions, and a chance to use writing skills she’d honed as an English student at Barnard. “I thought that if I wrote a pilot, I could get staffed [in a writers’ room] and have a regular job.”
So Shaw camped out in coffee shops with Isaac, writing a show about a young mom—“nonpretty and real to my life.” She called it SMILF (“single mother I’d like to…”—you get it) and spent $3,000 of her own money to make it. Shaw submitted a scene to the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on a whim and won the Short Film Jury Award: U.S. Fiction. Then Showtime snapped up the idea and started developing it with her as a TV show.
On the advice of Jill Soloway, Shaw fought to direct. “We met at a barbecue—we were both single moms with kids named Isaac,” she says. “Jill, who is like a mentor to me, said, ‘Do not let them take directing from you.’” Part of Shaw’s vision includes hiring other female directors, exclusively, to help helm season one.
SMILF, she says, is “really about a young woman figuring out how to make her life work while she has a kid. And even if she didn’t have a kid, she would be faced with many of the same issues.” Issues relating to ambition and sexuality that every twenty-something faces—all while seeing your body transform before your eyes or navigating the complexities of coparenting with an ex.
And the show is a family affair for Shaw. In addition to costar Rosie O’Donnell and guest star Connie Britton, Isaac’s father plays a sober priest in the show. (Of their relationship now, she says: “We’re coparenting; there’s always been love there.”) And her husband, Zach Strauss, is a writer for the series—the two met in 2013 and married in 2016. Isaac, 9, shows up now and again too, as Britton’s son, and he couldn’t be prouder of his mom. “He likes to tease Zach about the fact that I’m his boss,” says Shaw.
Her hope is that SMILF can accurately capture what it’s like to be a single mom. “You’re responsible for this young life,” she says. “Every thought—where they are, how they’re doing, their well-being—is about them. It’s a constant.” Offscreen, she hopes her story will set an example for her son, her own constant. “I want him to know: Do what you love. Just do what you love. I hope that message will get ingrained in him.”